Don BoscoIntroduction

The Salesian educational tradition has its origins and inspiration in the life and work of the northern Italian Catholic priest, John Melchior Bosco (1815 - 1888). Don Bosco was an educational practitioner rather than an educational theorist. He wrote very little about his educational principles and it is impossible to understand his approach to education without reference to the story of his life. His early childhood experiences were influential upon the development of his work and he actively incorporated the lessons of his own life experiences into his pedagogy. Therefore, this outline of the Salesian educational tradition looks firstly at the life and work of Don Bosco and then at some of the key elements of his educational philosophy.

Early Life

Born in the small rural hamlet of Castelnuovo in the Piedmont region of northern Italy to a poor peasant family, John's father died when he was only two years old. Despite dire poverty and severe family dysfunction, John's early life is characterised by great vivacity, deep religiosity and a willingness and ability to try to do almost anything. He demonstrated great aptitude for study, devoured books, had an incredible memory and great perseverance. He entertained young and old with his abilities at acrobatics and held them spell-bound with his talent for story-telling.

At the age of nine, John had a dream, which influenced and gave great meaning to the rest of his life. In the dream John saw himself amidst a great throng of young people whom he was charged to care for by means of goodness, kindness and love, rather than by means of force and compulsion. Even as a boy he commented to his mother, Margaret, on the fact that priests when they met him on the road were cold and distant and never bothered to speak to him. "If I am ever a priest," he said, "I won't be like that. I shall devote my life to young people. Children shall never see me pass by them looking grave and distant. I shall always be the first to speak to them."

Despite being forced to leave home at the age of twelve because of his relationship with his older brother, John persevered with his studies. To pay for his schooling, he took on part-time jobs and learnt skills including carpentry, tailoring and cobbling. He would later use these skills to train his own students. John entered the seminary and was eventually ordained a priest on June 5, 1841. After his ordination, Don Bosco undertook post-graduate studies in Turin, the provincial capital and the seat of the Kingdom of Savoy.

The Abandoned Youth of Turin

The middle decades of the nineteenth century were politically turbulent times on the Italian peninsula as the conglomeration of small independent states moved towards political unity, initially as the Kingdom of Italy and, subsequently, as the Republic of Italy. During this time relations between Church and State were severely strained, anti-clericalism was rife and successive governments proclaimed oppressive laws against the Catholic Church. Simultaneously, the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum and rural people headed for the cities. Here their hopes of a more prosperous life were dashed. Unable to cope with the sudden population influx, the result was overcrowded cities, joblessness, slums, youth homelessness, crime and poverty.

During his post-graduate course in Pastoral Studies, Don Bosco visited the gaols, hospitals, streets and market places of Turin. Here he came into contact with the homeless, the unemployed and the poor. The young in particular were least able to fend for themselves and most in need of care - many were in the city without any family. Don Bosco began gathering the boys who roamed the streets with nothing to do - especially on Sundays. He organised games and activities for them, gave them religious instruction and held religious services for them.

Later he purchased an old shed, which he repaired and renovated with the assistance of his boys. Thus, he established his first permanent "Oratory." In order to meet the needs of the "poor and abandoned" boys in his care, Don Bosco gradually extended his work to include the provision of food, clothing and accommodation. He even brought his aging mother to Turin to help care for them. He also began to use the trades that he had learnt as a young student to teach his own boys trades that might make them more employable. Thus began the educational project that would constitute his life's work.

In spite of criticism from church and civil authorities, Don Bosco persevered and as the years passed, extended his work. He sought the assistance of fellow priests and some of his older students, some of whom "stayed with Don Bosco." He united these collaborators into a community, with St Francis de Sales as their patron. Hence, the name "Salesian" which Don Bosco gave to his fledgling group, which he later formed into a religious order within the Catholic Church. Later, he established an order of religious sisters known as the "Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians" to further his work amongst girls.

Other Activities

In addition to his educational endeavours and his priestly ministry of religious services and preaching, Don Bosco undertook a multitude of other activities in the effort to promote his work and to adequately care for those in his charge. Attending to the material, pastoral and spiritual welfare of the rapidly expanding network of communities under his care and the continual need to secure the financial resources to fund and support his humanitarian, charitable and religious activities, meant that his time was increasingly occupied with meetings, travel and writing. In response to the need for educational resources for his students Don Bosco authored numerous texts in mathematics, spirituality, history and religion. He established his own printing press, edited several popular magazines and wrote a number of books, pamphlets and biographies in order to provide his students and his growing public audience with written materials appropriate for their human and spiritual formation.

Don Bosco was also called upon to undertake numerous other activities. He acted as a mediator between the Papacy and civil authorities throughout Italy, built numerous churches, schools and oratories, commissioned a series of missionary expeditions to South America and founded two organisations of lay people to assist him in his work.

The name "Don Bosco" became extraordinarily well known throughout Europe - especially Italy, Spain and France as a result of his prolific activity in such a wide range of civil and ecclesial projects. The nature of his work for young people and the novel, if not revolutionary, approach that he adopted captured the imagination of people from every stratum of society. Even towards the end of his life, Don Bosco's charismatic reputation for holiness and his popularity as a preacher and writer resulted in tens of thousands of people gathering to see and listen to him in each of the cities that he visited on tours of France and Spain.

A Living Tradition

It is not surprising then that Don Bosco's work, spirit and spirituality quickly spread throughout Italy, then Europe and South America. When he died on January 31, 1888, there were 773 Salesians. Today there are in excess of 17,000 Salesian priests and brothers, 18,000 sisters, and tens of thousands of lay people working in every continent and most countries of the world to continue the spirit and mission of Don Bosco amongst the young.